tv Overheard With Evan Smith PBS January 17, 2018 12:30am-1:01am PST
- [announcer] funding for overheard with evan smith is provided, in part, by the alice kleberg reynolds foundation, hillco partners, a texas government affairs consultancy, and by claire and carl stuart. - i'm evan smith, he's a two-term united states senator from minnesota and the author of several best-selling books, including his latest memoir, al franken, giant of the senate. he's al franken, this is overheard. (bright music) (audience applauding) let's be honest, is this about the ability to learn or is this about the experience of not having been taught properly? how have you avoided what has befallen other nations in africa? you could say that he made his own bed but you caused him to sleep in it. no, you sought a problem and over time, took it on and let's start with the sizzle before we get to the steak: are you gonna run for president? i think i just got an f from you, actually. (audience laughing) this is overheard. (audience applauding) al franken, welcome.
- thank you, evan. - thank you very much for being here, congratulations on the book. - thank you, thank you. - i have to say i was little surprised to learn about the book and to read it. it's a funny book, that's not the surprise but the surprise is that i remember when you got to the senate, there was talk of you, i guess the expression was the hillary clinton model, following the hillary clinton model, you know, do your homework, go to committee hearings, don't do national press, basically show that you mean to be a serious senator. you've been in there for nine years. - right, right. - this is not the kind of book you would've written, almost nine years, this is not the kind of book you would've written maybe at the first, would you? - oh, not at all. basically, i had to not be funny publicly-- - [evan] right. - for my entire first term (laughs). (audience laughing) and i took-- - hard to do. - i mean i get, the book is a response to a lot of questions i get asked. the first i get asked the most is is being a united states senator as much fun as working on saturday night live.
(audience laughing) and the answer is no. - i'm guessing probably not. (audience laughing) yeah, yeah. - why would it be? but it's best job i've ever had because i get to improve people's lives, i get to do that work. and another question i get is what's (chuckles) it like to be a comedian, how'd you make the transition from a comedian to being a senator and, of course, first you have to get elected and that first campaign was a very tough campaign 'cause my opponent and the republicans had created this $15 million machine called the dehummorizer-- (audience laughing) and it was made with state-of-the-art israeli technology (audience laughing) to take any of the context or irony or anything out of a joke, make it not funny and offensive at the same time so i had, as you know,
a very, very close election the first time. - 312 votes separating you and the incumbent norm coleman, who was the republican out of 2.5, six-- - nine million, 2.9 million. - nine million cast. - we're very, very close, and so basically, coleman didn't have much accomplishments to run on so it all a-- - right. - it was an incredibly negative campaign. i had to prove the people that i was taking this seriously 'cause so much of this had been about he's gonna disgrace minnesota and embarrass us and so i, my chief of staff, drew littman, had me meet with tamera luzzatto, who had been hillary's chief of staff and we, basically, i said hillary came here with some challenges. she was very well known-- - she was a celebrity not-- - a celebrity. - not exactly the same. - a different celebrity than me, bigger celebrity, and also had been the first lady in a previous
and because of that, probably republicans were gonna look at her a little, you know, askance. - right. - and democrats would worry about her taking their camera time, so basically, the hillary model was don't do national tv. - yep. - and work very hard, show up for your hearings early and stay late and come prepared and just be a workhorse and not a show horse, so that's what i did and i did that and i talk about there were times where i was tempted to, we had a hearing in the help committee, health, education, labor and pensions, we had a hearing on enda, the employee non-discrimination act and still in 30 states, you can get married now on a saturday, get fired on monday for being an lgbt, so we were trying to correct that and give, you know, say that you can't discriminate people for that and-- - i'm remembering the joke, that's why i--
- yeah, yeah, well-- - it's a great joke. - well, it was a good joke. (audience chuckling) but i'll be the judge. - okay. (audience laughing) - anyway so-- - better. - so we have the hearing and it's on this issue and not one republican shows up and it was the first time i'd ever been in a hearing where no one from the minority showed up there. they were in the minority at the time and so i'm sitting there and i'm the newest member so i'm down in the row and i'm sitting there going like, boy, it would be funny if i said it's a shame that none of the gay members of the committee showed up. (audience laughing) and... and the whole, the hearing was full of lgbt advocates so you know-- - you had the room, right? - i had the room. - would've been a funny joke. - and this voice said, "tell the joke!
(audience and evan laughing) "it'll kill!" and that was the devil and the angel was going, "now, al." - don't do it. - you know why you came here: (audience laughing) to improve people's lives. this is not gonna, as well, come on! (audience laughing) you know (chuckles). - well, i will say that one of the best things about this book is that it is like an inner monologue, right, this book, you tell-- - well, that part is (laughs). - a number of instances in which you talk about i wish i had said this or i thought about saying this and i didn't and it's actually, i wanna, you said, remember why you came here, the angel saying that. let's talk about why you came there so you were-- - the angel was actually--- - i'm sorry, that side. i'll get it right. (audience chuckling) - no, i don't know-- - we'll edit that in post. that's exactly-- (al laughing) your friend and mentor, the late paul wellstone had this seat previously, died tragically right before the 2002 campaign. - right. - you began to consider seriously running following his death, right? not immediately. - yeah. norm coleman, who got elected after paul died, a couple months after taking office,
his first capitol hill interview and he said, "to be blunt, i'm 99% improvement over paul wellstone." (audience murmuring) - right - and i just said, i wonder who's gonna-- - [evan] who's gonna take him on. - who's gonna beat this guy. - yeah, right, right. - and i didn't say those words exactly. (audience laughing) and that was the first time i'd ever considered running and i didn't actually think i was gonna be the guy but franni and i are about to be empty nesters. obviously, my kids have grown up in new york city but i wanna go back to minnesota, i thought about, so we moved back to minnesota, i did my show back in minnesota and i explored it and i talk about what it's like to put a campaign, well, at first, just even exploring it, there's this thing in minnesota called bean feeds, it's the democratic-farmer-labor party. that's sort of our organizing principle are bean feeds and you can have a spaghetti dinner or burger bash but they're all called bean feeds. (audience chuckling) and they're in counties
or in senate districts, senate districts or in the state senate district and so i started going around, and i really had a great time, i really enjoyed and i learned a hell of a lot and as i learned more, it became less about beating norm coleman and more about one of the big issues during that campaign, one of the things i kept hearing about was people terrified about going bankrupt because of a healthcare crisis and i was doing a radio show at the time. elizabeth warren was on the show frequently and she would, i knew from her that about half of all bankruptcies in this country at that time were tied to a healthcare crisis, a medical crisis and but as i went around minnesota, you go into any cafe or a vfw hall and you see a flyer up for a family that are going bankrupt, someone was having a pig roast for a family to raise money for a family
that had gone bankrupt because someone got sick and then it started becoming personal to me because it was personal to the people of minnesota. - right. - so that's why right now, as we're taping this, this is what the achievements of the affordable care act, which is, by no means, perfect are really threatened by this latest iteration-- - latest iteration of the bill. - of trumpcare and so this is a really fraught time-- - yeah, and years later, this was still an issue. i mean this is the issue you wanted to get resolved-- - well, yeah-- - and here we go. - again, the affordable care act isn't perfect but i write in the book about t.r. reid wrote a book about our healthcare system, and norm coleman during the debates would say like, "we have the best healthcare system in the world "because we have the mayo clinic." (audience laughing) and i go, okay, mayo delivers good a care as anywhere
in the world, you're right, but a hospital or a clinic is not a health care system. we don't have a healthcare system in this country. we have a lot of systems if you're on medicare or medicaid, you are in the canadian system, you're in single-payer. if you're getting your healthcare through the va, if you're in the military, you're in the british system, socialized medicine, if you're getting your healthcare or your insurance from your employer, you're in the german system, if you have no insurance at all, you're in the cambodian system. (audience laughing) and the point of obamacare was to get people from the cambodian system into one of the other systems. - [evan] into something else. - yeah, and that's what we did. now, there were some of us who would've gone, wanted to go to single-payer at that time. bernie sanders was leading that at that time. - well, you've now supposed senator sanders' medicare for all bill. - yeah, but the time,
and we're still in the same situation, at the time, you needed 60 votes and we were about 55 votes short so-- (audience laughing) that was not an option. - so you're saying there's a chance. (audience laughing) - well, i'm saying there's not a chance now exactly but the thing where norm coleman was wrong is that actually, every other developed country has universal healthcare, they don't all have single-payer. they have some combination of things, which ours would end up being too and but they actually deliver as good a care, as high quality outcomes, if not better, at often just about half the cost or a little bit more so we've had bipartisan hearings recently in the health committee, the help committee, health, education, labor and pensions, with lamar alexander as the chairman and patty murray-- - patty murray - as the ranking member of republican from tennessee, she's a democrat
from washington state and we've had some really good hearings and we've had the first hearing was with five insurance commissioners from three republican states and two-- - yeah. - completely agreed. we need to do cost-sharing, we should do reinsurance. i don't wanna explain all that get everybody mad at me for boring them, then we had governors, five governors, three republicans, agreement. we were on a road to do this and then this, mcconnell nixed it, majority leader mcconnell nixed it so we could go to this vote on this terrible bill. - right. - that's gonna end up with tens of millions of people-- - if it passes. - if it passes, losing healthcare and some will voluntarily, the mandate will be gone, so they don't have to buy it and states will determine things but it means that you won't necessarily, there's no guarantee
you'll have protections if you have pre-existing conditions. there's no guarantee that you won't have lifetime limits or annual limits, which means that if you get sick and you go through your limit, that's it. - that's it. - you're screwed. - is the kind of bipartisanship you're talking about something that is possible at the moment in our politics? republicans are awful, you say in the book, so democrats-- - there's some irony, don't put it through the dehumorizer. (audience and al laughing) - i won't, i won't. i won't, i won't, i won't, i won't. - okay. - so democrats, you can re-humorize it as i go. - yeah, yeah. - the position of democrats is, on the other hand, republicans are awful, we have to do everything we can to help america fight them and on the other hand, republicans exist so we have to everything we can to have america help them-- - yeah, and i also say that we don't have a monopoly on good ideas, they have some good ideas so i say-- - i guess the point is do you feel like you are in a frame of mind and is the politics of this moment make it possible, i should say, to work with the other party?
- yes, and we do it all the time. it doesn't actually make any news at all 'cause it's-- - unless the president makes a deal with chuck and nancy, apparently, that makes news. - that kind of, he almost always makes news. - period. - period, because he's different. (audience and evan laughing) (chuckles) and, but, you know, we're in texas, john cornyn and i did something that on basically mental health and our prison system and law enforcement and i don't wanna help him, you know, vote against him (audience laughing) here in texas but we worked together on this and it was almost unanimous in both affect and kind of basically was in both houses so we do this all the time. - let me ask you about trump, so i'm quickly running through our time, i wanna get to the president, last two chapters of this book are about the president,
the book was written recently enough that you get to go through the victory and also through the inauguration. - well, yeah, but my take on trump is really tying it to the rest of the book 'cause i used to write books like lies and lying liars who tell them: a fair and balanced look at the right. - [both] rush limbaugh is a big fat idiot - and other observations. (audience laughing) and a lot of those books were about lying. - yeah. - and i have this just, i just can't stand lying and so i think what happened is that lying just became normalized or something and it didn't matter and so i talk about that. i talk about the contrast between what they tried to do to my character and through by putting jokes through the dehumorizer and what trump clearly (chuckles) his character, i do not know if you know this, is a little dicey. - do you understand, you're from the state
in which hillary clinton prevailed but only won by 44,000 votes if i did the math right. - she won by one and a half points. - right. - there a lot of franken - trump voters-- - trump voters in minnesota. so you know people in minnesota who supported him. you have a sense why they supported him and do you have a better understanding of what caused him to win is a conference of those people who supported and-- - sure, sure, sure, i mean i write in my book about me growing up in the '50s and my dad didn't graduate high school, he was a printing salesman. we grew up, my brother and parents and i in a four, a two-bedroom house, one bath, i felt like the luckiest kid in the world 'cause i was growing up middle class, at the height of the middle class in america in minnesota in st. louis park. i felt like i could become anything i wanted. it was almost a birth right for americans that your kids will be better than you and my parents assumed that and i assumed. and people don't feel like that anymore and with good reason
because there's no evidence and this is why i had elizabeth warren on my show 'cause she was talking t the middle class because there's no evidence andsqueeze and part of that was the cost of healthcare and part of that the cost of education and the flat wages and the economy, you know, globalization, all kinds of things and people were angry about that and we may have a little, a different take on why that is. democrats aren't great at messaging. i say in the book that our bumper stickers always end with continued on next bumper sticker. (audience and evan laughing) but we do have approaches to do and part of it is what we were doing in that committee with lamar alexander and patty murray was taking steps to get the cost of healthcare down on the exchanges and--
- is the messaging the problem? why didn't democrats do better last year? why don't democrats do better generally? - there are just, i mean how long do we have? - well (faint speaking). (evan and audience chuckling) yeah, i mean, look-- - i know you believe this and i know that others believe it but, obviously, we're at a place now in this country where the president won the election, whether or not he won the argument, you guys are not in control of either the white house or the congress and so-- - oh, yeah. - what's it gonna take to get back to get back? - well, in 2018, i don't know what we're going to do. i'm not a prognosticator but i think what we have to do is let people know they we're on their side and that means you have to go to rural and ex-urban areas in my state.
there are a lot of trump-franken voters or franken-trump voters in my state. now i am co-chair of the rural health caucus and so during these, again, these iterations of trumpcare, i've gone to a lot of hospitals and nursing homes and they hate this trumpcare, they hate it 'cause they know that slashing medicaid will hurt rural america worse than anything. the hospitals in minnesota, because we expanded medicaid, there's so much less uncompensated care now that they're able to hire more people and deliver better care at their hospitals and that has been a tremendous boon for everybody in rural minnesota and i've had round tables where people will cry because they know what happens if you cut medicaid this much. my mom, someone will say, gets her home healthcare
through medicaid, my husband and i both work. if they take that away, there's a good chance they will if this happens, we don't know what we're going to do. - so the root back is for you to persuade those people you're on their side. - yeah. - that's it, you and people like you. - yeah, and then to talk about things like bring down the cost of college and then talk about about things that aren't bipartisan like going, i go around the state talking about workforce training 'cause in minnesota, we have a very low unemployment rate and we have a skills gap. - yeah. - and i go to communities where they wanna keep their kids there and these jobs, they worry about these factories leaving they can't, they don't have the skill labor but i'm trying, i'll sit around a round table. i don't know what political party anybody's in and i don't care and i will never care and we talk about
i meet with the community and technical college president. i'll meet with the superintendent of schools, the high school principal, the junior high principal, the manufacturers that are in that town, the hospital because, again, they're the biggest employer so we'll talk about having a career track where you can start high school to be a certified nurse's assistant and i've talked to a young woman who, in burnsville, minnesota, who said, "i'm gonna be a cna when i get out of school "and i'm going to work while i'm in college as a cna "and then i'm gonna go to medical school," and but what all these committees have in common is that they want their kids to stay there and there's a reason for that. you wanna be with your grandchildren and those kids want their kids to be with, near, know their first cousins and know their grandparents. - right. and as you point out, that's not a partisan issue, right? that's something that everybody can agree on.
- no, and so part of the reason, the second time i ran, i won a re-election-- - considerably more. - very comfortably in part of it is i go around minnesota and do that and people know me, and that's when i started allowing myself to be a little bit funnier publicly. (audience laughing) - (chuckles) i watched you earlier this year, we have a couple of minutes left, i watched you earlier this year as the president's nominations made their way through the senate, jeff sessions, betsy devos, neil gorsuch, and often, the democrat on the relevant committee who was as much out front as anybody in holding those folks to account was you (audience applauding) and the consequence of it, regardless of the outcome. - and these are all republicans. - yes. (audience laughing) as you know, we get a very conservative crowd here at the austin pbs station, right, yeah. (audience laughing) - yeah. - yeah, so my point is that you now, by virtue
of your leaning into who you are, you're in your second term, you can more comfortably be you and the fact that you've been such a bulldog in the settings i've described, people want to run for president, why don't you? - 'cause i don't wanna be president. - seriously, you don't? - yeah, no. i think whoever's president should want to be president. - it's that simple. - well, i don't, yeah. - there's nothing that could move you off that stick. you've heard the same stuff i've heard, i mean, look, at this point, it's easier to make a list of people who are not mentioned as candidates, right? - right. - but you're on the list of those who are mentioned. - yeah, but you just said that it's easier to make a list of people who are not-- - you wanna be on that list. - you wanna be on the not-mentioned list. - i don't mind being mentioned but i'm just not gonna do it. - you're not gonna do it. - yeah (laughs). it's great being mentioned, you know? - there's nothing that could get you off that? - no, i mean, look, as a senator, i've gotten to see the president a little closer than i saw when i was in comedy. (audience laughing) and-- - really? - it's a tough job, it's an incredibly tough job
and there are crises where you have to make, you know, when assad first used chemical weapons against civilians, i came out, i was at the state fair in minnesota when that happened and i was being interviewed on the npr station at the fair and i said, i don't think you can let this stand. this is a norm that we've had. we have not had an american soldier gassed since the first world war, if we don't respond, it'll put, then i get there and minnesotans didn't want us to do it, didn't want us bombing them and then i'm gonna have to vote on it, that's what president obama said, congress can have the vote on it and then i got briefings and if we bombed, there would've been human shields
and those human shields would've been innocent people who we would be killing with our bombs. that's not the kind of decision i wanna be making every day. now, as a senator, i have to make those decisions every once in a while but that's not-- - you prefer this job that you have now to that job. - i prefer the job of trying to get people healthcare. i prefer the job of holding betsy devos accountable for not knowing anything (laughs). (audience laughing and applauding) you know, about education. (audience laughing) - to be fair. - to be fair. (chuckles) so i like this job and i like representing the people of minnesota. - okay, well, keep it, we're done here. a good place to end, it's fun to see you again. thank you so much for being here, congratulations. - thank you, everybody. (audience cheers and applauds) - al franken, thank you. we'd love to have you join us in the studio. visit our website at klru.org/overheard
to find invitations to interviews, q&as with our audience and guests and an archive of past episodes. - to me, the most effective thing to do is every one of you here have an issue that you care about and is to actually become active in that, and it's also you, it's good for your mental health to be involved in something that you care about and to be with people who care about the same thing. - [announcer] funding for overheard with evan smith is provided, in part, by the alice kleberg reynolds foundation, hillco partners, a texas government affairs consultancy, and by claire and carl stuart. (chiming music)
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